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Napoleon Invades Russia

Napoleon Invades Russia


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The Napoleonic Wars

Britain and France were briefly at peace but soon argued, the former wielding a superior navy and great wealth. Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain and gathered an army to do so, but we don’t know how serious he was about ever carrying it out. But Napoleon’s plans became irrelevant when Nelson again defeated the French with his iconic victory at Trafalgar, shattering Napoleon’s naval strength. A third coalition now formed in 1805, allying Austria, Britain, and Russia, but victories by Napoleon at Ulm and then the masterpiece of Austerlitz broke the Austrians and Russians and forced an end to the third coalition.

In 1806 there were Napoleonic victories, over Prussia at Jena and Auerstedt, and in 1807 the Battle of Eylau was fought between a fourth coalition army of Prussians and Russians against Napoleon. A draw in the snow in which Napoleon was nearly captured, this marks the first major setback for the French General. The stalemate led to the Battle of Friedland, where Napoleon did win against Russia and ended the Fourth Coalition.

The Fifth coalition formed and had success by blunting Napoleon at the Battle Aspern-Essling in 1809 when Napoleon tried to force a way across the Danube. But Napoleon regrouped and tried once more, fighting the Battle of Wagram against Austria. Napoleon won, and the Archduke of Austria open peace talks. Much of Europe was now either under direct French control or technically allied. There were other wars Napoleon invaded Spain to install his brother as king, but instead triggered a brutal guerrilla war and the presence of a successful British field army under Wellington – but Napoleon remained largely master of Europe, creating new states such as the German Confederation of the Rhine, giving crowns to family members, but bizarrely forgiving some difficult subordinates.


How Napoleon ALMOST became a Russian officer

In 1788 in Florence, a Russian Lieutenant-General, Ivan Zaborovsky was accepting foreign officers into Russian military service in order to recruit them for a war with the Ottoman Empire. One day, Zaborovsky was told that some Corsican-born sub-lieutenant by the last name of Buonaparte was asking for an urgent personal audience with him. Normally, an officer of his rank would not have considered this, but the officer in question was Corsican, and the general was instructed to pay special attention to French officers coming from this region, so he gave his consent.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) at the age of 16 years (pencil with white on paper), counterfeit.

A pale, thin and emaciated 19 year-old sub-lieutenant entered his cabinet. He asked, even demanded, to be accepted into Russian service with the same rank that he had in the French army &ndash which was against the rules Catherine the Great herself had recently introduced. Zaborovsky was a respected and seasoned general. He could possibly make an exception for some French general or colonel, but for an unknown sub-lieutenant? Impossible. Frustrated by Zaborovsky&rsquos refusal, Buonaparte left his cabinet hastily. In fact, he almost ran out, shouting in disdain: &ldquoI&rsquoll enter the Prussian service! The Prussian king will make me a captain!&rdquo

What was this all about? What preceded this strange incident?

The back story

Napoleon Bonaparte left his home in Corsica island in 1779, shortly before turning 10 years old, to enroll in the Military School at the town of Brienne-le-Château in north-central France. Although a kind of outcast (because of his marked Corsican patriotism), Napoleon managed to excel in maths, history, and geography, and upon graduating from the school in 1784, chose the career of an artillery officer. He was accepted in the École Militaire in Paris, which he finished ahead of the schedule in 1785 in the rank of sub-lieutenant and started serving in the French army.

Napoléon Bonaparte in 1792, Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st Battalion of the French National Guard

Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux/Palace of Versailles

Earlier this year, Napoleon&rsquos father, Carlo Buonaparte, died, leaving behind a big debt to the French government (his business that he started in his later years, had failed). Napoleon, although not the senior son in the family, took on the responsibilities of the family&rsquos head. Shortly after starting his real military service, he had to ask for a temporary discharge to support his family and returned to Corsica for the first time in years. Napoleon had to prolong the discharge twice, and even after returning to service in 1788 in the same lowly rank of sub-lieutenant, lived a rather frugal lifestyle &ndash he had to send most of his pay home to his widowed mother. Often, the future First Consul had to literally starve, surviving only on his relentlessness and grit.

Desperately looking for ways to kick-start his stalling military career, Napoleon almost enrolled into Russian military service. In 1788, a war between the Russian Empire, ruled by Catherine the Great, and the Ottoman Empire, was underway. Lieutenant-General Ivan Zaborovsky was sent by Catherine to Southern Europe to recruit foreign officers to serve in the Russian Imperial army. What could lure Europeans into the Russian service was money &ndash the Russian army paid much higher salaries than any of the European ones. Zaborovsky had orders to pay special attention to officers coming from Greece, Albania, and Corsica &ndash they had long-standing traditions of war with the Turks, and were summoned to the Russian army under the motto of the &ldquowar of Christians against the infidels.&rdquo

However, not long before that, Catherine issued an order to accept foreigners into the Russian army only by downgrading their military rank one step. Taking this into account, Napoleon would have had to become a praporshchik &ndash the lowest officer&rsquos rank in the Russian Imperial army. No, the ambitious Bonaparte wouldn&rsquot allow this. After all, he was a preliminary graduate of the École Militaire in Paris! So he tried to reason with general Zaborovsky in person, as described.

The aftermath

Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon

No, Napoleon didn&rsquot enter the Prussian service, as he promised in mixed emotions. He returned to his regiment, and was promoted to lieutenant only in 1791, after the French Revolution had already happened.

However, after that, his career skyrocketed. He went back to Corsica, where he entered the French National Guard and was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel, then downgraded to captain, but in 1793, after his famous feat during the Siege of Toulon, promoted to brigadier general.

In 1812, when Napoleon&rsquos army entered Russia, Ivan Zaborovsky, already 77, was living in Moscow, serving as a senator in one of the Moscow departments of the Governing Senate of the Russian Empire. An old man, he couldn&rsquot command or take part in battles, so, just like most of Moscow nobility, he had to flee to the countryside. However, Zaborovsky lived to see Napoleon defeated and ousted from Russia. Ivan Zaborovsky died in 1817.

If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.


A deteriorating relationship

The grievances were beginning to stack up. At the end of 1810 , a large number of vessels from a convoy carrying British goods and proceeding through the Baltic successfully landed in Russian ports as neutral ships or were simply left to continue their journey. Napoleon realised that Alexander no longer had any intention of respecting what they had agreed at Tilsit, and, with more and more vessels landing in Russia, on 13 December 1810 , a sénatus-consulte was announced which formally incorporated the Hanseatic cities of Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg into the French empire. Despite French military presence in the ports for more than four years, fraud and counterfeit were still widespread and the annexation was intended to strengthen the blockade along the Baltic. Notably, this act also annexed a number of territories linked to the ports, including the Duchy of Oldenburg. This small dukedom was ruled by the regent Peter I, whose son George was married to Alexander I's sister, Catherine Pavlovna of Russia. Napoleon offered Erfurt to Peter as compensation for Oldenburg, a proposition that was poorly received both in Oldenburg and in Russia. Although initially intent on remaining in place with severe restrictions imposed upon his rule, the duke was soon forcibly ejected. By an imperial decree dated 22 January 1811 , Napoleon ordered the displacement of the Oldenburg family and the seizure of the dukedom, contravening the treaty of Tilsit (article 12), and further worsening Franco-Russian diplomatic relations.

The turn of the year was to prove particularly trying for both sovereigns. On 31 December 1810 , the Russian tsar announced an ukase (proclamation) decreeing that goods (other than those of British provenance) could once again enter Russia via its ports, whilst imports entering the empire over land (the majority of which was of French origin) would be hit with heavy duties. Despite the ukase 's stipulations, Russia was effectively open to British trade again. Moreover, any goods found to have entered the country illegally would be destroyed. Such a change in commercial policy – announced without consulting the French emperor – merely heaped further pressure on the two nations' diplomatic relations. Napoleon's letter, dated 28 February 1811 , mixed melodrama and unconcealed menace but was a clear sign that the relationship was on the rocks.

“I cannot conceal from myself the fact that Your Majesty no longer has any regard for me. […] [Your] latest ukase is, in content and most especially form, specifically directed against France. […] Britain and Europe already believe our alliance is no more. […] If Your Majesty will permit me to speak with candour: You have forgotten what profit You have gained from the alliance […] I am struck by the evidence of these facts and by the thought that Your Majesty is entirely disposed, a soon as circumstance permits it, to come to an agreement with Britain this would be nothing less than inciting war between the two empires [i.e. France and Russia]. Were Your Majesty both to abandon the alliance and destroy the Tilsit conventions, it is clear that war would follow, sooner or later. This atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty is inconvenient for both Your Majesty's empire and mine. […] If Your Majesty has no intention of returning to Britain's side, You will appreciate the necessity of clearing up all this confusion, for my benefit and Yours.”

Russia however had been active behind Napoleon's back for months. Between the spring and winter of 1810 , Colonel Alexander Chernichev's diplomatic mission to Paris (a front for intelligence gathering) and close relationship with Bernadotte had allowed Russia to both cultivate ties with the newly-elected Swedish crown prince and obtain intelligence on Napoleon's policies. The Russian officer's espionage was uncovered, however, and after a private interview with Napoleon – during which the French emperor made it clear that the game was up – the Russian officer promptly left Paris, having burned his personal papers. The identity of the French mole handled by Chernichev – a certain “Michel” working in the Ministry of War Administration who had access to army strength tables, and accurate troop positions and movements – was uncovered following the Russian officer's flight at the end of February 1812 . Although Chernichev was allowed to leave French territory – Napoleon was not prepared to provoke a diplomatic incident this early on – the French emperor nevertheless took advantage of the deceit to play the injured party in a note which Maret addressed to Kurakin on 3 March 1812 . On 1 May 1812 , “Michel” was executed for “having supplied intelligence to a foreign power with a view to providing it with the means of making war on France”.


Waterloo & Beyond: 5 Mistakes That Doomed Napoleon

Two hundred years later, Napoleon continues to be relevant today.

June 18 marks the bicentenary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great defeat at Waterloo, the battle in today’s Belgium that ended his career. Waterloo has since become a byword for a final crushing defeat. Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars were an important watershed in history and there is renewed interest in this period today.

The world of Napoleon, with its multiple great powers, shifting alliances, realpolitik, and need for battlefield skills more closely resembles the modern world than World War II or the Cold War. Therefore, a study of Napoleon is very relevant for today’s policymakers.

Napoleon was one of history’s greatest tacticians, though his abilities as a grand strategist and statesman were perhaps more limited—or at least subordinate to his ambition, that double-edged sword that both spurs men toward glory but also snatches it away from them. For a few years, from around 1805 to 1812, he was the undisputed master of Europe, yet by 1815, he was exiled to an isolated British island in the South Atlantic, having narrowly escaped being shot by the Prussians.

What happened? How did this genius end up on the path to downfall?

Here are five mistakes that doomed Napoleon.

Napoleon insults Talleyrand

Although Napoleon understood diplomacy and statecraft, he was definitely more adept as a soldier and administrator. Napoleon faired well diplomatically during the early period of his rule, however, this was due mostly to the skills of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

Talleyrand was considered one of the most adept, skilled diplomats in European history—in 1815, he secured a peace for France that was extremely lenient considering the history of the previous two decades—but was also known for holding a grudge. Under his watch, and Napoleon’s military prowess, France was able to excel geopolitically because Talleyrand managed to prevent all of Europe’s powers from allying against France and got many countries to throw their lot in with Napoleon.

Napoleon, however, began to shut Talleyrand out of power because the latter was corrupt and grew rich through war related speculation (these charges were true). He also began to oppose Napoleon’s adventures in Spain and his harsh treatment of defeated Prussia and began “counseling” the Tsar and other foreign leaders. However, Talleyrand really turned against Napoleon sometime around 1808-1809 when Napoleon, suspecting him of treason, publically berated him, calling him a “shit in a silk stocking,” adding that he could “break him like a glass, but it's not worth the trouble.”

Surprisingly, Napoleon thought this was the end of the matter and continued seeking the services of Talleyrand, even restoring him to full power by 1813. During this time, Talleyrand passed information to the Russians and Austrians, among others. Strangely enough, he was never caught and Napoleon seemed unaware of these activities, especially since Talleyrand had a personal reason to see Napoleon gone. Talleyrand continued to serve a number of French regimes and foreign powers for the rest of his life.

Napoleon embarks on the Peninsular War in Spain

Napoleon embarked on the Peninsular War in Spain—a long, unnecessary, guerilla struggle—that wore down his forces from 1808 to 1814. The Peninsular War marked the point where many of his enemies, both internally and externally, began to realize that Napoleon was overstretching and started working to bring him down. The Peninsular War led individuals such as Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Talleyrand, and the British general the Duke of Wellington to all realize that Napoleon did not know when to stop.

By 1807, France was at peace with all her neighbors minus the British, having defeated the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians, coming to favorable terms with all of them. Napoleon was the master of Europe but he failed to convert this into a lasting peace.

The Peninsular War began initially because Napoleon wished to invade Portugal to prevent it from trading with Britain. As with the invasion of Russia, this was hardly necessary and cost far more than it was worth. In the process of invading Portugal, Napoleon also became involved in a succession issue between the Spanish king and his son and ended up placing his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne—an action that completely lacked foresight, failed to take the conditions and wishes of the Spanish into consideration, and smacked of nepotism from a man famed for promoting meritocracy.

Inexplicably, Napoleon would continue to promote and place members of his largely incompetent family on thrones throughout Europe, alienating many countries and bringing him little benefit. In Spain itself, French troops fought brutally against armed bands and civilian populations, leading to its estrangement from the population. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of French troops that could have been used elsewhere were bogged down in guerilla warfare against Spanish insurgents aided by British troops under Wellington for seven years.

Napoleon invades Russia

As is widely known today, invading Russia with a large army from the west is generally not a good idea. This was not as widely known in 1812, however, and having defeated the Russians in numerous pitched battles in Germany, Napoleon was confident of victory in Russia.

Napoleon’s first mistake was invading Russia at all: it was totally unnecessary. One of the primary reasons for the invasion was to enforce the Continental System, a blockade aimed at preventing the British from trading in any ports across the continent. Yet, the invasion of Russia strengthened the British position by providing it with an ally willing to openly trade with it. And the French goals were not nearly important enough to justify the invasion, which was overreach and hubris.

One he commenced his invasion of Russia with the 600,000-men strong Grande Armée, Napoleon failed to achieve the conditions required for a typical Napoleonic victory—utilizing his tactical genius to defeat his enemies in a pitched battle. Russian armies kept on retreating and refused to fight until the Battle of Borodino, near Moscow, which was indecisive.

Afterwards, Napoleon occupied Moscow but failed to take into account that the Russian way of waging war did not conform to his expectations. He thought that occupying Moscow would force the Russians to come to terms instead the Russians burnt down Moscow. Napoleon simply could not cope with the combination of logistical challenges and issues of scale on a territory geographically and culturally distinct from the conditions he had mastered.

As a result, the normally goal-oriented Napoleon could not achieve his aims and was instead forced to retreat from a ruined Moscow in winter. A combination of weather, disease, desertion, and attacks reduced his army to less than 80,000 troops by the time they left Russia. To summarize the totality of Napoleon’s mistakes during the Russian Campaign: he was unable to adapt his brilliant thinking beyond the localized context of the battlefield.

Napoleon leaves Elba

After his first defeat and abdication in 1814, Napoleon was offered fairly generous terms for one who had earned the enmity of the other great powers of Europe. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, off the coast of Italy, but he was confirmed as the sovereign of that island, and had contact with many of his friends, family, and supporters throughout Europe. This was a much better deal than execution or his eventual fate as a semi-prisoner on St. Helena in 1815.

However, his fate was sealed when he escaped from Elba and returned to France, ensuring that he would not get such a deal again, as other European powers decided that he was too close for comfort and stability.

Napoleon should have never left Elba the conditions for future victories were minimal, and he knew it. He took a big risk in returning to France, but he succeeded in regaining power there. However, even if he had won at Waterloo, it is doubtful he could have lasted in power for long because all the other powers of Europe were arrayed against him and had sworn to remain at war until his defeat. The armies of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia were all amassed on France’s borders, boxing Napoleon in. Napoleon’s prior victories were won when he took the initiative, striking away from France and when all his enemies were not coming at him at once.

Additionally, his enemies had adapted their tactics accordingly to defeat Napoleon and his Marshals and knew to go after the French armies without Napoleon at their head.

Historian Andrew Roberts argues in his recent book Napoleon: A Life that Waterloo was a battle that Napoleon could have easily won—the younger Napoleon at least.

Napoleon is thought to have made multiple errors during the course of and run-up to Waterloo that sealed his fate. Napoleon left his best general, Louis-Nicolas Davout back in Paris to head the War Department instead of bringing him along to fight. Davout had single-handedly defeated the main Prussian army in 1806 at Auerstedt with only one corps, 28,000 French soldiers against 63,000 Prussian soldiers.

Instead, Napoleon brought with him another general, Michel Ney, who commanded the left wing of the French army at Waterloo. Ney’s cavalry are thought to have erred in charging British soldiers too late, not using infantry or artillery support, and failing to render the British cannons inoperable. It seems odd that Napoleon, being an obsessive micromanager, could overlook this aspect of the battle.


Napoleon Invades Russia - HISTORY


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Instead of giving battle, the Russians retreated, destroying everything that could be of use to the French. Napoleon had always lived off the land in his campaigns in order to forestall a supply problem. Now it was impossible. When he reached Moscow in September he found it burning. There was nothing there which could feed and house his troops for the winter.so he was forced to turn back toward home just as winter was setting in. His Grand Army ran out of supplies and soldiers died of disease and and the bitter cold of the Russian winter. They were clad only in summer uniforms. Russian troops continually attacked them as they trudged home. Only 40,000 survived the march.

At this point, the anti-Napoleonic forces gathered together. Over the course of 1813 and early 1814, Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Russia, as well as a host of other small countries, drove Napoleon's forces back to France. This was the turning point.

Part of Napoleon: Hero or Tyrant? a HistoryWiz Exhibit

copyright HIstoryWiz 1999-2008

Your purchase of books or other items through links on this site helps keep this free educational site on the web.


History Lesson: How Invading Russia Doomed the Swedish Empire

Key point: Sweden once was mighty and it nearly defeated Russia. However, Russia engaged in a scorched-earth campaign and managed to outlast and defeat the Swedish invaders.

When most people think of Sweden, they think of IKEA furniture, depressing murder mysteries and a foreign policy of strict neutrality.

Yet 400 years ago, Sweden was a major military power. Indeed, it was even an empire, a fact that must make today's Swedish leftists cringe.

Under young King Gustavus Adolphus, a brilliant and innovative military commander, Sweden in the early 1600s became a sort of Nordic Israel (which must also make Swedish leftists cringe). Sweden was a poor, thinly populated nation that couldn't match the resources of larger rivals such as France and Russia.

So, Gustavus Adolphus had to devise a more flexible, mobile form of warfare. In an age when armies consisted of poorly paid and underfed peasants and mercenaries more likely to loot their own fellow citizens than fight the enemy, Sweden maintained a professional and well-trained standing army. Swedish troops maneuvered tactically in smaller, flexible companies instead of the cumbersome formations of their enemies. While 17th Century armies were transitioning from swords and pikes to muskets and artillery, Gustavus Adolphus increased the number of gunpowder weapons. Most artillery of the era had little battlefield mobility, but the Swedish king equipped his infantry regiments with their own light, mobile field guns that could support the foot soldiers throughout the battle.

During the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, Swedish forces advanced so far south that they almost captured Prague and Vienna deep in Central Europe. Their crowning achievement was the Battle of Breitenfeld in September 1631, when a Protestant army of 23,000 Swedes and 18,000 Saxons nearly wiped out a Catholic Holy Roman Empire force of 35,000 men, and lost just 5,500 men in the process.

Gustavus Adolphus fell at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632 (though his army still won). But in a succession of conflicts with IKEA-like names such as the Torstenson War, Swedish forces performed well against the Danes, Norwegians, Dutch, Poles and Russians. Sweden seized large parts of today's eastern Germany and Poland, and became a major Baltic power.

And then Sweden decided to invade Russia in 1708.

Can you guess how this going to end?

The Great Northern War of 1700-1721 pitted a Swedish-led coalition against a Russian-led alliance. The Swedes were commanded by young Charles XII, a clever, energetic ruler dubbed the “Lion of the North” and the “Swedish Meteor.” But Russia was led by the legendary Peter the Great, who eventually turned his large but poor nation into a major European power. At stake was Swedish control of swathes of Eastern and Central Europe, and more important, who would be the dominant power in the Baltic.

Charles XII marched into Russia with just 40,000 men, a small force compared to the 500,000 of Napoleon's Grande Armee of 1812, or the 3 million men of Hitler's Operation Barbarossa. Yet the war began well for the Swedes. It knocked Denmark-Norway and the Polish-Lithuanian Empire out of the war. But as in later conflicts, there was still the Russian colossus to contend with.

Yet waging war with small, hard-hitting armies was a strategy that worked for Sweden before. So why shouldn't it work again? At Narva in today's Estonia in 1700, 12,000 Swedes outnumbered nearly 3 to 1 almost wiped out a 37,000-strong Russian force during a battle fought in a blizzard. In many ways, the struggle resembled World War II, where smaller but proficient German forces defeated larger but clumsier Soviet armies.

Unfortunately for the Swedish Meteor, the Russians also used a strategy that had always worked for them. Their armies withdrew deep into the vastness of Mother Russia, leaving “scorched earth” in their wake and precious little for the Swedish soldiers and horses to eat. Meanwhile, Russian columns ambushed and destroyed Swedish reinforcements that Charles desperately needed to replenish his battered army.

Then came the Great Frost of 1709, the coldest winter that Europe had experienced in the previous 500 years, which of course turned Russia into a vast freezer that could sustain human life under the right conditions. For a Swedish army deprived of shelter and food in a scorched landscape, the conditions were anything but right. More than 2,000 Swedes died from the cold in a single night. Those who have seen the photos of frozen German soldiers at Moscow and Stalingrad can imagine what the boys from Stockholm must have looked like.

The tombstone of the Swedish Empire was carved at the Battle of Poltava in central Ukraine in June 1709. The summer after the Great Frost saw the Swedish army shrink to 20,000 soldiers and 34 cannon. Ever the aggressive monarch, Charles XII laid siege to Poltava. Peter intervened with a relief force of 80,000 men. The Russian troops first resisted a Swedish charge (wounds had forced Charles to relinquish command of his army). The Russians then counterattacked with their superior numbers, enveloping and routing the Swedish forces.

The Swedes suffered about 19,000 casualties, almost their entire force. The Russians also suffered. But as later invaders were to learn, the Russians could replace their losses while the invaders could not.

Charles left Russia with 543 survivors. Sweden lost its Baltic territories, and never regained its vast possessions or military glory. Soon the Swedish Empire was no more.

To be fair to the Lion of the North, Charles XII had no crystal ball to foresee what would happen to Napoleon and Hitler when they invaded Russia. The more interesting question is why Napoleon and Hitler didn't learn from the fate of Charles XII. It is curious that over the course of 250 years, three European kings and dictators fought a campaign in Russia in the dead of winter. None succeeded.

Nonetheless, there is a story that soon after Napoleon invaded Russia in June 1812, the Tsar dispatched General Balashov with a letter urging peace. When Napoleon said he would defeat Russia, Balashov is said to have warned him: “The Russians, like the French, say that all roads lead to Rome. The road to Moscow is a matter of choice. Charles XII went via Poltava.”

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This first appeared in 2016 and is being reposted due to reader interest.


Napoleon in Russia: invader turned icon

In the early 19th century, the French-speaking Russian nobility admired French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, seen then as an unparalleled political and military strategist.

But when his army invaded Russia in 1812, residents of Moscow preferred to torch their capital and leave it in ruins rather than surrender it to the hated Corsican general.

Two hundred years after his death in exile on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena, an anniversary marked on Wednesday, Russians' views have since shifted again.

"We admire his rise from rags to riches and his death as a martyr," Viktor Bezotnosny, a historian and specialist of the Napoleonic wars told AFP.

During the Soviet period, the Bolsheviks glorified Napoleon as a revolutionary akin to Lenin, and while that image of him changed after the Soviet collapse, his popularity in some circles remained.

For Vladimir Presnov, director of a museum on the sweeping fields at Borodino, the site of a decisive battle that saw some 70,000 soldiers perish in a single day, "even the most patriotic Russians no longer see Napoleon primarily as an invader".

Meet three Russians who have all formed an intense interest in the French emperor:

In white uniform, black boots, blue epaulettes and helmet, Mikhail Shmaevich closely resembles a Napoleonic colonel.

Playing the role of a rifle corps colonel, he is among a group of history enthusiasts, who reenact French Grand Army battles.

"Vive l'Empereur! Vive la France!" the actors on horseback shouted at a re-enactment in February, after the remains of more than 100 Napoleonic soldiers were reburied in eastern Russia.

There are some 2,500 re-enactors in Russia, whose five annual performances attract tens of thousands of spectators to watch battles like Borodino played out.

For Shmaevich, who as president of an equestrian club is an excellent rider, Napoleon is a "genius" who was ahead of his time.

He says Russia's defeat of Napoleon saw it become a dominant country in Europe and spurred reforms culminating in the end of serfdom in 1861.

"It's thanks to him that Russia became a great European power, modernised its industry and its political system," Shmaevich told AFP.

The walls of Alexander Vikhrov's large apartment in Moscow are lined with paintings depicting Napoleon's military exploits and cabinets filled with miniature busts and memorabilia featuring the French emperor.

"Napoleon is the first person in history to become an object of worship even in the countries he invaded," says Vikhrov, the owner of one of the largest private collections dedicated to Napoleon.

Since making a small fortune in the economically chaotic years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vikhrov has made a hobby of hunting down Napoleon paraphernalia.

Among his prized items is a fragment of the bed in which the Emperor died and a medallion with a lock of Napoleon's hair bought for 4,000 euros ($4,808).

"Who knows, one day this hair could be used to create a Napoleon clone," Vikhrov says, laughing.

Napoleon, he says, is a "contradictory character, prone to tyranny towards the end of his reign but above all a great man whom France is trying to put in the shadows."

Maria Lyudko, a voice instructor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, is proud to be a descendant of one of Napoleon's 2,000 soldiers who remained in Russia after the French army retreated.

She says her grandfather stayed in Lida in what is now Belarus, worked as a private tutor and married his student.

Lyudko added that she only knows her grandfather's surname: Vigoureux.

At the height of political repression under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, having a French name was dangerous and her family changed it.

But now Lyudko is considering changing it back again.

"It is to this Napoleonic soldier that I owe my sense of morale, initiative and responsibility, and also my appreciation of food, humour and resourcefulness," Lyudko said, laughing.

The man ultimately in command of the army her grandfather fought in was, a "real hero, intelligent, ambitious, both pragmatic and romantic," she said.


Flow Map of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

This map, drawn by French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, shows Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, three years before the Battle of Waterloo.

The orange and black columns crossing the map show the French Grande Armée on its march to and from Moscow. The width of the column shows the size of the army – ever-shrinking as thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers died of disease, cold, starvation and Russian attacks. This image brilliantly displays the devastation of Napoleon’s army over the winter of 1812-13. It has been called “the best statistical graph ever drawn”.

Napoleon invaded Russia in June 1812, marching his army of 680,000 soldiers across the river Neman. He hoped to force Tsar Alexander I of Russia to stop trading with Britain, and finally force the British to end their long wars against France. Instead, the Russian army retreated, refusing to give Napoleon the decisive battle he fought. The French forces marched on Moscow, but Cossack troops burned the countryside ahead of them, cutting off all sources of food and shelter. The campaign was a disaster, with 380,000 troops of the Grand Armee being killed. With his largest army shattered, Napoleon was forced to retreat across Europe, eventually being defeated by the Allied Sixth Coalition, and sent into exile on the island of Elba.

The black line straggling back from Moscow shows this terrible rate of casualties, and the temperature scale at the bottom of the image charts the freezing weather conditions of the Russian winter. In all, this image displays six types of data in two dimensions: the number of Napoleon’s troops the distance travelled temperature latitude and longitude direction of travel and location relative to specific dates. The arrows coming off the main bar also let Minard show where smaller forces left the main army and later rejoined it.

Charles Minard was 31 at the time of the Russian campaign. He was an engineer, creating harbours and canals for the French state. In later life, he became fascinated by maps and charts to explain complex situations. He was willing to bend geography to better express the essentials of his data. Minard himself admitted:

“The aim of my carte figurative is less to express statistical results, better done by numbers, than to convey promptly to the eye the relation not given quickly by numbers requiring mental calculation.”

This chart, seen as his finest achievement, was created in 1869, when Minard was over 80 years old.


No Russian Marriage

Peace between Russia and France had its advantages. It allowed the two great states to carve up much of Europe between them and focus on other opponents. However, to the French, the alliance with Russia was disappointing. The Russians seldom gave the French Emperor what he wanted.

One of the most powerfully symbolic issues, if the least strategically significant, was finding Napoleon, a wife. His first marriage to Josephine had not led to children. The Emperor had no heir, and so the couple agreed to divorce so he could remarry and ensure the Napoleonic line.

This was a chance for a diplomatic marriage that could consolidate French power and the royal legitimacy of Napoleon’s children. However, when he suggested to the Russians one of their princesses might become his bride, he received a frosty reception. It was a setback to his plans and a sign Russia was not committed to their partnership in the long term.


Watch the video: Napoleons Russian Campaign - War u0026 Peace 나폴레옹의 러시아 원정 (June 2022).


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